chasing Lincolns killer
by Jim B., Age 13
, Grade 6, mason middle, mason, MICHIGAN USA
Four days later, John Wilkes Booth was drinking with a friend at a saloon on Houston Street in New York City. Booth struck the bar table with his fist and regretted a lost opportunity. "What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the president on Inauguration Day! I was on the stand, as close to him nearly as I am to you."
Crushed by the fall of Richmond, the former rebel capital, John Wilkes Booth left New York City on April 8 and returned to Washington. The news there was terrible for him. On April 9, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union General Grant at Appomattox. Booth wandered the streets in despair.
On April 10, Abraham Lincoln appeared at a second-floor window of the Executive Mansion, as the White House was known then, to greet a crowd of citizens celebrating General Lee's surrender. Lincoln did not have a prepared speech. He used humor to entertain the audience.
"I see that you have a band of music with you. ...I have always thought 'Dixie' one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries ...attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday we fairly captured it. ...I now request the band to favor me with its performance."
On the night of April 11, a torchlight parade of a few thousand people, with bands and banners, assembled on the semicircular driveway in front of the Executive Mansion. This time Lincoln delivered a long speech, without gloating over the Union victory. He intended to prepare the people for the long task of rebuilding the South. When someone in the crowd shouted that he couldn't see the president, Lincoln's son Tad, volunteered to illuminate his father. When Lincoln dropped each page of his speech to the floor it was Tad who scooped them up.
Lincoln continued: "We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart." He described recent events and gave credit to Union General Grant and his officers for the successful end to the war. He also discussed his desire that black people, especially those who had served in the Union army, be granted the right to vote. As Lincoln spoke, one observer, Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, a free black woman, standing a few steps from the president, remarked that the lamplight made him "stand out boldly in the darkness." The perfect target. "What an easy matter would it be to kill the president as he stands there! He could be shot down from the crowd," she whispered, "and no one would be able to tell who fired the shot."
In that crowd standing below Lincoln was John Wilkes Booth. He turned to his companion, David Herold, and objected to the idea that blacks and former slaves would become voting citizens. In the darkness, Booth threatened to kill Lincoln: "Now, by God, I'll put him through."
And as Booth left the White House grounds, he spoke to companion and co-conspirator Lewis Powell: “That is the last speech he will ever give."
On the evening of April 13, Washington celebrated the end of the war with a grand illumination of the city. Public buildings and private homes glowed from candles, torches, gaslights, and fireworks. It was the most beautiful night in the history of the capital.
John Wilkes Booth saw all of this — the grand illumination, the crowds delirious with joy, the insults to the fallen Confederacy and her leaders. He returned to his room at the National Hotel after midnight. He could not sleep.
John Wilkes Booth awoke depressed. It was Good Friday morning, April 14, 1865. The Confederacy was dead. His cause was lost and his dreams of glory over. He did not know that this day, after enduring more than a week of bad news, he would enjoy a stunning reversal of fortune. No, all he knew this morning when he crawled out of bed was that he could not stand another day of Union victory celebrations.
Booth assumed that the day would unfold as the latest in a blur of days that had begun on April 3 when the Confederate capital, Richmond, fell to the Union. The very next day, the tyrant Abraham Lincoln had visited his captive prize and had the nerve to sit behind the desk occupied by the first and last president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. Then, on April 9, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee and his beloved Army of Northern Virginia surrendered. Two days later, Lincoln had made a speech proposing to give blacks the right to vote, and last night, April 13, all of Washington had celebrated with a grand illumination of the city. These days had been the worst of Booth’s young life.
Twenty-six years old, impossibly vain, an extremely talented actor, and a star member of a celebrated theatrical family, John Wilkes Booth was willing to throw away fame, wealth, and a promising future for the cause of the Confederacy. He was the son of the legendary actor Junius Brutus Booth and brother to Edwin Booth, one of the finest actors of his generation. Handsome and appealing, he was instantly recognizable to thousands of fans in both the North and South. His physical beauty astonished all who saw him. A fellow actor described his eyes as being “like living jewels.” Booth’s passions included fine clothing, Southern honor, good manners, beautiful women, and the romance of lost causes.
On April 14, Booth’s day began in the dining room of the National Hotel, where he ate breakfast. Around noon, he walked over to nearby Ford’s Theatre, a block from Pennsylvania Avenue, to pick up his mail: Ford’s customarily accepted personal mail as a courtesy to actors. There was a letter for Booth.
That same morning a letter arrived at the theater for someone else. There had been no time to mail it, so its sender, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, had used the president’s messenger to hand-deliver it to the owners of Ford’s Theater. The mere arrival of the White House messenger told them the president was coming to the theater tonight! Yes, the president and Mrs. Lincoln would attend this evening’s performance of the popular if silly comedy Our American Cousin. But the big news was that General Ulysses S. Grant was coming with them.
The Lincolns had given the Fords enough advance notice for the proprietors to decorate and join together the two theater boxes –seven and eight –that, by removal of a partition, formed the president’s box at the theater.
By the time Booth arrived at the Theater, the president’s messenger had come and gone. Some time between noon and 12:30 P.M., as he sat on the top step in front of the entrance to Ford’s reading his letter, Booth heard the big news: In just eight hours, the man who was the subject of all his hating and plotting would stand on the very stone steps where he now sat. Here. Of all places, Lincoln was coming here.
Booth knew the layout of Ford’s intimately: the exact spot on Tenth Street where Lincoln would step out of his carriage, the box inside the theater where the president sat when he came to a performance, the route Lincoln could walk and the staircase he would climb to the box, the dark underground passageway beneath the stage. He knew the narrow hallway behind the stage where a back door opened to the alley and he knew how the president’s box hung directly above the stage.
Though Booth had never acted in Our American Cousin, he knew it well –its length, its scenes, its players and, most important, the number of actors onstage at any given moment during the performance. It was perfect. He would not have to hunt Lincoln. The president was coming to him.